Adds Fairland to list of those who made it to the finals
OWASSO — There’s a connection between Ottawa County’s last state championship team and an Afton High School football squad that will attempt to bring home a gold ball Friday, Dec. 7.
When Picher-Cardin went 15-0 and waltzed through the Class A playoffs to claim the school’s only state title in 1984, Afton superintendent Randy Gardner was defensive coordinator, working alongside head coach Chris Cawyer.
Zach Henry, a senior fullback and linebacker with the 2017 Eagles, is the youngest son of Shell Henry, who earned all-state honors after the Gorillas nipped Fox 23-21 in the ’84 final.
“The one biggest thing (I tell the players) is cherish the moment that you have right now,” Gardner said. “For the seniors, it is their last hurrah, but for the underclassmen, they may experience it again and they may never. It’s been 33 years since I experienced it. It just gets more important ever year, thinking ‘man nobody else has done this.’
“I just feel fortunate to hopefully be able to experience that again.”
Gardner’s son — current Afton head coach Zach Gardner —was 4 years old at the time the Gorillas won their championship.
The 2017 Eagles enter Friday’s game against second-ranked Crescent at Owasso Stadium with a record of 13-0 — the best in school history.
Afton was 12-0 in 2016, but suffered a 43-15 semifinal loss to Hominy, at the same venue.
Hominy went on to crush Wynnewood 42-14 in the championship game the following week.
“We basically have been playing it one at a time; if it happens, it happens,” Shell Henry said. “The kids have asked me questions throughout the year: what I experienced, ‘is our team as good as your team was?’”
Only seven schools in the immediate northeast Oklahoma corner have had a chance at a championship since the playoff system was added in the 1940s.
Welch captured the Class B state title in 1987 with a 26-13 victory over old nemesis Morrison at Bristow.
The Wildcats had suffered a 22-13 loss to Morrison a year before.
The most recent school with a chance to capture a gold ball was Grove, which reached the Class 4A finals in 2006 only to lose to Oklahoma City Bishop McGuinness, 31-0.
“It’s a pretty special time right now to maybe experience that championship feeling again, one last time for me probably,” Gardner said.
A fluky play gave the Gorillas the lead for good with 1:13 left in the third quarter.
It looked like Shell Henry was stopped short of the goal line on a fourth-and-2 play from the Fox 2.
Defensive end Wayne Spigner knocked the ball loose from Henry, but it bounced right into the arms of trailing back Sam Freeman — who went into the end zone untouched.
The extra point by Willie Ng— who nailed a crucial 32-yard field goal earlier in the game — gave Picher-Cardin a two-point cushion.
Two fumbles and an interception blunted would-be drives by Fox as time wound down.
Shell Henry had a game-high 158 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
Freeman chipped in with 121 yards and two touchdowns.
Henry finished with 2,539 yards and 31 touchdowns, averaging 12.2 yards per carry for the Gorillas.
He averaged 208 yards in Picher-Cardin’s four playoff games, scoring 14 times.
Henry also averaged 29.1 yards on 21 punt returns scoring four times.
Senior quarterback Wil Amos has rushed for more than 2,500 yards and has thrown for more than 1,000 while accounting for 50 total touchdowns on the season.
He had 353 rushing yards — one of the best ever in state playoff history — and five touchdowns in a 52-7 semifinal romp against Thomas last week.
Shell Henry sees a lot of similarities between the two teams.
“They were keying on me and Sammy Freeman goes 65 on the first play of the game,” Shell Henry said. “We’ve got it with Briar Julian, my son Zach at fullback with Brett Hollon at wide receiver. The offensive line is a big part of our team.
“They are doing a lot of the same things that we were doing at Picher.”
The current Eagles and the Gorillas were a very tight knit group,” the older Henry said. “The kids hang out together, they enjoy each other and they love each other. That’s the way it was at Picher.”
The 2017 Eagles are a well-rounded team, Randy Gardner said
“I don’t think we have a weak spot on the field where you have to hide somebody,” he said. “We are blessed with receivers, linemen, running backs. Most of the time at a school our size you will have six or seven players, then you just try to spot them in and get by with where they are. This group if someone wants to key on Wil, we have an answer to that. If they want to exploit our linemen, we have the answer to that. We have good blockers at the receivers.”
Randy Gardner served a three-year stint as the Gorillas’ head football coach (1979-81) then stepped back and assisted Chris Cawyer before departing for Afton, where he’s been superintendent for 26 years.
“I started (at Picher-Cardin) in 1975 fresh out of college,” the elder Gardner said.
He helped launch the Lady Gorilla basketball program and coached in numerous other areas.
“I did a little bit of everything,” Gardner said.
Cawyer and Gardner also had the help of several other young coaches: Rick Trimble, David Fisher and Rod Graves.
“They all were in the process of getting degrees and getting into coaching,” Gardner said. “They have all gone on to be successful coaches.”